‘This is our place’: besieged Kyiv prepares to fight as Russian troops reach outskirts

Ukrainian civilians given guns as explosions shatter eerie silence of curfewed capital

Two Olehs were talking behind an old blue van in central Kyiv, the smaller one surveying the almost deserted streets around Saint Sophia's Cathedral, while his bigger namesake stood at the open back doors and clicked bullets into the magazine of a Kalashnikov.

"We didn't attack anyone but now we must do whatever we can to defend our city," says the smaller Oleh, who worked in engineering until Russia invaded his country this week.

"We signed up for the territorial defence force straight away," says his bulkier comrade, whose usual job is in the finance section of a Kyiv company.

“We both served in the Soviet army years ago,” he adds, when asked if they had had any time to train. “We have to be prepared for anything. We’re not going anywhere and we’re ready to fight.”

The near silence of Saturday afternoon in the heart of Kyiv was strangely welcome after a night of rumbling explosions from the outskirts, but also deeply unnerving in its contrast to the bustling and vibrant normal life of this beautiful city of three million people.

Fierce fighting had raged for Kyiv and other major cities across Ukraine since the early hours of Thursday, when Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an offensive with tens of thousands of troops, tanks, missiles, fighter jets, helicopters and warships.

As Ukraine's outgunned forces stood their ground, its president Volodymyr Zelenskiy ordered a general mobilisation of men of fighting age and urged people to join the territorial defence force; thousands have signed up and taken weapons given out by the authorities, while volunteers are making petrol bombs in preparation for street fighting.

‘Nothing to lose’

Across the street from the blue van was perhaps the only crowded place in central Kyiv – police headquarters, where a dark wedge of men filled both sides of the steps as they queued up to receive guns.

A young man stops at the van as he walks by with his dog. In his long black hooded jacket, skinny jeans and boots he could, on any normal weekend, have been thinking how to spend Saturday night in a city that is often compared to Berlin for its sense of style and freedom.

“What do I need to get a weapon?” he asks the two Olehs.

“Just your passport,” says one of the older men, who may soon be fighting alongside him.

A few hundred metres away, another Oleh and his wife Olha used a break in the sound of bombing to walk their three corgis under blue skies on a mild and sunny day.

“This is our home, we have nowhere to go and nothing to lose. We only want peace and calm,” says Olha, close to the Maidan square that was the epicentre of the 2014 revolution that turned Ukraine towards the West and away from Russia.

"We never thought of doing anything bad to anyone. We just want to move towards the European Union, to have a legal system that works like it does in Europe. Ukrainians often go to the EU, we often go to visit friends, and we want things here to be like that – and even better in some ways – so future generations here live better.

“We have lots of friends in Europe offering support, asking how they can help. They are in shock and really worried,” says Olha.

“The world is shocked and it’s really important to feel the support we’re getting from abroad. Not just from politicians but from ordinary people,” adds Oleh.

“We’ll do everything we can to defend our motherland Ukraine and our home city Kyiv – we’ll even take up arms if we have to.”

Countless Ukrainians are now spending much of their time hiding from possible missile and shell strikes, bedding down in metro stations and the cellars of apartment blocks that serve as makeshift bomb shelters.

In the tunnels beneath Maidan, Tatyana and Konstantin were looking not for a place to hide but for an open pharmacy, only to find that the big shopping centre under the square had closed along with almost every store in the city.

“We’re trying to get my capsules, because, war or no war, I must take them regularly for an oncological problem,” says Konstantin.

“All of this is especially hard for us because we are from Donetsk,” he explains, referring to the city 700km to the east that since 2014 has been held by Russian-led militants, whose self-declared “people’s republics” in the Donbas region were recognised as independent states by Putin before his invasion.

“We got away from one war in 2015 and brought our children and grandchildren to Kyiv. We got used to life here and now the same thing is happening again. Now we simply have nowhere else to go.”

‘Shoot to kill’

Nearby, Iryna and her daughter Sophia stop to take a photograph of St Sophia’s Cathedral, which was founded in the 11th century, amid the eerie emptiness of the wartime city.

It is about 2.30pm, and Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko has announced that the city will enter curfew at 5pm and remain locked down until 8am on Monday.

The defence ministry has said Ukrainian soldiers are trying to stop Russian troops reaching bridges over the Dnieper river that lead to the city centre, and will “shoot to kill” anyone trying to cross; Klitschko warns that “all civilians on the street during curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage-reconnaissance groups”.

As I talk to Iryna and Sophia, two men quickly approach. They say they are from the SBU, Ukraine’s security service which has its headquarters nearby, and they ask for our documents. One of them takes a pace back and covers us with his pistol as we reach into our pockets.

“Irish. Okay – friend,” he says in broken English after his calmer colleague returns my passport. “It’s not safe to be out now. Go home.”

Iryna and Sophia seem completely unperturbed by being stopped by armed men outside their door in the middle of Kyiv.

“We are all right, we are calm,” says Iryna. “My husband has gone to fight but we will stay. We have a house in the countryside but we are staying in Kyiv.”

“Vse bude dobre,” adds Sophia, in what has become a mantra for the besieged city: “Everything will be fine.”

When she gives me her name, Sophia and her mother turn with a smile to the ornate blue-and-white belltower and gleaming golden domes of the cathedral that is her namesake.

“Like I told you,” says Iryna, “this is our place”.